PHILADELPHIA (AP) - After decades of false starts, shifting owners, dashed hopes and a nomadic existence, it appears the SS United States' distress call is finally being answered.
The nonprofit SS United States Conservancy announced Tuesday it has purchased the legendary ocean liner, berthed in Philadelphia since 1996, from Norwegian Cruise Lines and its parent for $3 million.
"While we've already been talking with a number of investors, municipal officials and developers, we can take these conservations to the next level because we now hold title to the vessel," said Susan Gibbs, conservancy board president and the granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, the ship's Philadelphia-born designer. "Our doors are open and we're ready for business."
The five-block-long ship known to fans as "Big U," a rusting hulk unceremoniously towed from port to port for nearly 40 years, remains an impressive sight at its Delaware River pier in South Philadelphia.
It got a reprieve from scrapping in July, when Philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest pledged $5.8 million to the SS United States Conservancy to buy it from Norwegian Cruise Line and its parent - who turned down a bid twice as high from a scrapper - and pay its insurance and maintenance for 20 months.
Since then, the conservancy has been working with the Environmental Protection Agency on a plan for removing toxic PCBs - fire-resistant chemicals once commonly used in paint, electrical equipment and building materials - from the largely gutted ship. The EPA said it was satisfied with the conservancy's cleanup plan and allowed the sale to go through.
"We only have a 20-month stay of execution . so we must move quickly," Gibbs said.
Lenfest, whose naval architect father designed parts of the SS United States, in a statement called the ship "an iconic part of American maritime history" that deserves to be saved.
The estimated $200 million cost to renovate the ship's of development space will come from for-profit entities. The conservancy is exploring possible partnerships with as yet unnamed entities in Philadelphia, New York and Miami to redevelop the liner as a stationary entertainment complex with a hotel, restaurants, retail, educational and museum components, Gibbs said.
In the meantime, the group has launched a $1 million fundraising campaign to pay for title transfer costs, structural assessments, PCB removal and other costs, said Dan McSweeney, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based conservancy.
On its 1952 maiden voyage from New York to Le Havre, France, the liner's 268,000 shaft horsepower engines set a new trans-Atlantic speed record: 3 days, 10 hours, 42 minutes. That beat the previous pace by about four hours, setting a record that still stands for a conventional passenger ocean liner.
Commissioned as a joint venture between the Navy and ship designer Gibbs & Cox, the $78 million liner's luxury disguised its military might. Though never called to battle, it could have been converted in a single day to transport 14,000 troops.
Instead, it carried heads of state, royalty and celebrities in its 400 round trips. Passengers included Presidents John F. Kennedy, actress Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco, and England's King Edward VIII. Then-Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton traveled tourist class - one step above the crew - on his way to Oxford University in 1968.
The popularity of air travel meant those glory days were short-lived.
In 1969, United States Lines abruptly canceled a scheduled cruise and decommissioned the ship. The Navy acquired it in 1973 for $12 million and mothballed it for potential service.
Late businessman Richard Hadley bought the ship for $5 million in 1978 and planned a $35 million overhaul and Los Angeles-to-Hawaii cruises. After his company fell behind in payments to dock the vessel and filed for bankruptcy, the ship was auctioned for $2.6 million in 1992.
Marmara Marine, which won the auction over a scrapper, had the SS United States towed from Newport News, Va., to Turkey but a deal to restore it there fell through. It was towed in 1995 to Ukraine, where its asbestos could be removed cheaply, and was gutted.
The ship has been moored in Philadelphia since 1996, when Marmara docked it on the Delaware River for restoration and promised 1,500 new jobs in the process. New Jersey based developer Edward Cantor bought the beleaguered ship only a year later. Upon Cantor's death, Norwegian Cruise Line purchased it in 2003 and sought to restore it for cruises to Hawaii.
The expense of retrofitting proved too great and the troubled legend again went on the block.
"This is the first time in the history of the SS United States that a group concerned primarily with the vessel's historic significance and preservation has owned her," McSweeney said.
"We can't truly say she's saved yet - that will happen when we establish a successful partnership to redevelop the ship - but we can say that we're generating the right momentum to be able to achieve that goal," he said.
© 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.